December 7, 2022 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
In content marketing, a subject matter expert (SME) is a person with in-depth knowledge of an industry or field that serves as the primary factual resource for content development. It’s important to be picky when searching for someone to fill this role for your brand or a particular project. When you call someone an “expert” they have to have the right attributes to live up to that title. Not just anyone will do. Today, we’re looking at the qualities of an SME you should watch for when researching and vetting potential partnerships:
Having a checklist of the qualities you want in a partner can make the subject matter expert selection process easier. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of attributes content creators and marketing teams should look for when searching for and interviewing potential SME candidates. Your SME may not have all the traits we list. But that doesn’t make them unqualified for the job. Your team has to decide on the right blend of attributes for your content and audience. Here are several to consider when choosing the right subject matter expert for your brand:
Where did your potential SME go to school? What kinds of degrees do they have and in what fields? Looking into someone’s educational background is a good first step when deciding if they’re the right expert for your project. While education and schooling can’t give you the complete picture of someone’s knowledge or expertise, the institutions they attended and the degrees they completed may help you choose one candidate over another in a one-to-one comparison situation.
For example, if you have two potential SMEs that seem on par with one another in every other area, but one has a master’s degree in your field and the other has a bachelor’s, you might choose the one with the master’s. That person likely has more in-depth and specialized knowledge from more in-school experience.
The place where your potential SME earned their degree matters, too. If you have two candidates with the same type of degree in the same field, you can tell who might have more training or expertise based on where they went to school. Someone who graduated from MIT likely has more specialized training in their field than someone who attended Joe’s Technical College.
After looking at a candidate’s educational background, research their job history. Where have they worked or interned? How long have they stayed with each company or in each role? What job responsibilities did they have? Similar to someone’s educational background, their job experience doesn’t give you the entire picture of what they know or what they can do. But it’s still something you should look at to verify they know what they’re talking about.
For example, nobody’s going to trust a person who claims to be a medical expert if they’ve never even had a job in the field. When considering tenure with a company or years in a specific role, don’t let consistency fool you. Staying in one place or in a position for a long time has both pros and cons. On the upside, someone who has a long-tenured job or loyalty to a company may have the benefit of a lot of time to learn that organization’s processes and expectations. But on the downside, it’s an isolated experience with a single company and can mean a whole new learning curve to align with your brand’s expectations.
But longevity doesn’t mean a job hopper can’t be a good SME. Those who have multiple roles or have worked for many companies over their careers have the benefit of learning your industry or their area of expertise from all sides, rather than just the inner workings of one organization.
There’s an old saying that goes, “those who can’t do, are those who teach.” When you’re looking for a subject matter expert for your content project, don’t pay attention to that saying. The best teachers and professors are people with real-world experience in their fields—the doers. Take, for example, an accounting professor who worked for 15 years as a CPA or a journalism instructor who’s an editor at a local paper.
Teaching experience combined with other SME qualities is a great way to determine if your candidate is going to help your audience understand the complex information they share in each piece of content. A teacher likely already deals with a range of students with unique abilities and skill levels, not unlike your audience. They know how to break down dense industry topics for all audiences to understand.
One of the most important qualities your SME can have is staying on top of trends, industry breakthroughs, and innovation. Look for candidates that take part in regular training or continuing education programs in the field. These programs may look different in every industry. Most continuing education classes come with certifications or some kind of credential to prove that the person completed the program.
But continuing education also includes non-structured activities like watching webinars, attending conferences or lectures, reading industry journals, or listening to niche podcasts. You can often tell what types of training and continuing education your prospective SMEs do by checking out their social media profiles, resumes, or personal blogs and websites to see what certifications and recent industry articles or resources they’ve shared.
The most experienced people in any field often have some big wins to their names. When we think of “big wins,” we often think of awards, galas, and accolades. It’s true, industry awards and recognitions qualify as expert wins, but they’re not the only criteria here. Depending on your field, an SME’s big win might not get a red-carpet entrance and a special plaque. Getting quality praise from a supervisor, or solving a complicated problem to streamline workflow production are two examples of big wings that may not get much fanfare.
These examples still help the SME’s company and likely stemmed from a situation that made them dig deep and learn more about their industry and how it works. Because companies don’t publicize all these types of big wins, it’s important to talk to your SME candidate’s coworkers, colleagues, and supervisors to learn more about their accomplishments inside and outside the organization.
What types of research projects, experiments, and similar work-related activities do your SMEs take part in? The more involved someone is in their field, the more likely they are to have in-depth knowledge and expertise about niche areas of the industry. For example, doctors that take part in research studies or clinical trials may know more about experimental breakthroughs coming soon to their specialties than those who don’t participate.
Image via Unsplash by @josealjovin
Does your SME candidate engage with the industry community? in the digital age, the first thing we usually think of with engagement is social media. Are your SMEs on social media? Do they take part in conversations on Twitter or engage in debates on LinkedIn? These are good indicators that your SME candidates already have a following and your audience may already know them before they sign on to help with your content. Look at other online places SMEs may grow their followings—like online message boards where they participate in community discussions.
This community engagement can happen offline, too. Look for SMEs with active or lifetime memberships to professional organizations in their niches. The more groups they belong to, the more “in the know” they may be about upcoming industry trends and topics. Belonging to organizations also opens your candidates up to more training and continuing education opportunities.
SME self-promotion stems from strong industry community engagement. The better connected your potential SMEs are, the easier it may be for them to talk up their skills and their projects. Those projects include expert collaborations with your brand. Choosing an SME who’s skilled in self-promotion makes getting the word out about your new content easier.
Not only does your brand share and promote pieces through its usual channels, but you also gain access to a larger audience by asking your SMEs to promote the pieces on their channels. The better someone is at talking up who they are and what they can do, the better they’ll be at sharing your collaborative works with their followers.
Aside from someone’s industry knowledge and skills, their personal reputation should also matter when choosing an SME. It’s going to matter to your audience. Especially in such a prevalent “cancel culture,” what someone says and does outside of work has the potential to affect their career and its opportunities. You can likely spot any red flags about someone’s reputation by browsing their social media profiles, both personal and professional.
Twitter is often a channel that gets people into moral, legal, or politically correct hot water, so that’s a good place to start your search. When trying to determine someone’s reputation, consider the things they say and do when they’re not at work. Do they hold any opinions or share content that doesn’t match your organization’s values? Do they say or do things your audience may not agree with or approve of? Since you plan to align your brand with this SME, the things people think of them, they’ll associate those with your brand too.
How does your SME do in an interview? No, we’re not talking about a job interview, though that might be a good place to get a read on their interview skills. We’re talking about how well your SME performs in a content interview. This quality may be more crucial if you’re creating live content or audio and video-recorded content like podcasts and webinars. We’ve all seen late-night and talk show interviews that are so uncomfortable to watch because the interviewee just isn’t great at talking or answering questions.
You don’t want that in an SME. You want someone who’s comfortable speaking to another person and who’s confident in their answers and what they’re saying. If someone doesn’t interview well, that doesn’t mean you have to count them out of the SME running. But you have to decide if you have the time and resources to train them to get better. Otherwise, it’s easier to work with someone more comfortable in front of a camera, microphone, or content writer with a voice recorder.
Your SMEs don’t have to be skilled writers, editors, graphic designers, or videographers. Unless you plan on having them develop their own content. For most marketing teams, SMEs serve as a research resource. Your content developers work with them to get key information for a piece. Then they take that information and turn it into top-quality content.
But sometimes you may ask your SMEs to write their own blogs or record their own how-to videos. If you plan on having your SME do any of the content creation, not just sharing wisdom or providing fact-checking, you need to make sure they have the technical skills to do the job. While it’s easier to teach a content developer the finer points of a subject than it is to teach an SME to write or record, it’s not impossible. Just make sure you have the time and resources to dedicate to that kind of training before creating the partnership.
Does your SME enjoy being part of and talking about their industry? People can be fantastic at something and not like it at all. And despite producing high-quality results, their lack of enthusiasm often shows in the way they talk about what they do.
Chandler Bing from Friends is a great example of this situation. Despite working in statistical analysis and data reconfiguration for over 10 years, receiving many promotions, and making a lot of money, Chandler hates his job. It shows every time he talks about what he does. Don’t pick an SME like Chandler. Pick one like Ross. He never shuts up about the museum, artifacts, or dinosaurs. He has enthusiasm for his job and he’s not afraid to show it.
For SMEs who work in a behind-the-scenes capacity, such as fact-checking, consider how they deliver feedback to other members of the team. Obviously, the job of an SME fact-checker is to make sure all the information your team releases about an industry or topic is accurate and helpful. That means telling people when they’ve gotten something wrong and delivering constructive criticism. Emphasis on the word “constructive.”
Nobody enjoys receiving criticism or finding out they’ve done something wrong. But that’s the nature of content development. Make sure you’re choosing an SME who can handle giving feedback with tact. Rather than choosing someone who preaches from the mountaintop, look for someone who will work with your creatives to make sure they understand and proposed changes. SMEs who put creating the best content possible at the center of the partnership are better than those who act like superior know-it-alls.
While your content team likely takes care of most of the piece’s ideation and development, look for SMEs that can help with the process. Partnerships work best when everyone on the team has ideas and feels comfortable and safe enough to share them. Look for SMEs who want to work in that kind of collaborative environment and have more than just knowledge to bring to the table.
Because SMEs have extensive experience in their industries, they have a deeper insight into what the audience wants to see. Though they’re your experts, they’re also part of the group you’re creating content for. Listen to their insights and be open to running with the ideas they share.
Is your audience going to like your SME? They might know everything there is to know about the industry and have an excellent reputation. But if your SME is boring, pompous, or just downright unlikable, they won’t captivate your audience. Likeability might be a more important quality for SMEs who are on camera or do audio recordings, such as for videos or podcasts. But even in writing, someone’s personality shines through in their word choice and sentence structure.
If your audience doesn’t like your SME, they might not give your content a chance, no matter how well-researched and factual it actually is. Think of your SME as a character on a TV show. It doesn’t matter how interesting the plot of the show is. If people don’t like the cast that portrays the characters, they’re going to stop watching. If people don’t like your SME, they won’t stick around to see what they have to say.
Can your audience relate to your SME? Similar to likeability, people have to “get” your SME on a deeper level. Does this person act like a superior know-it-all? Do they look down on people who they think know less, or are beneath them? Or is your SME someone who worked hard and dug their way up from the trenches? They’ve been where your audience is right now and they know their pain. These SMEs understand your audience on a deeper, more personal level. Being able to relate to your audience increases the chances they’ll like your SME, too.
Another helpful quality of an SME during the collaboration process is patience. Your SME is likely going to be the smartest person in any room. It’s easy to get frustrated or want to roll your eyes when you think you’re explaining something as simple as possible and people just aren’t getting it. Look for SMEs who can hide their irritation when working with your content team or engaging with audience members during webinars and conferences. Being patient doesn’t mean your SME doesn’t get annoyed with repeating themselves. They just don’t outwardly show how annoyed they really are.
A curious SME is always going to provide your content team with a wealth of knowledge and information. Many of the qualities we already discussed may help you determine if you have a curious SME candidate without coming out and asking about it. Those who take part in continuing education, training, community engagement, and industry projects often do so because they want to learn more.
These SMEs are curious about the world around them, what’s currently popular, and what’s coming next. If your candidate puts career curiosity at the center of what they do, you’ll never be short on topics or potential collaborations.
We’ve talked a lot about the internal and skills-based qualities of your potential SMEs, but now it’s time to acknowledge the practical elements: does your ideal candidate have time to work with your company? Even if you’ve found the perfect candidate for your project, if they don’t have the availability to dedicate to your project, you have to pick someone else.
SMEs are likely busy with their jobs, families, projects, and other expert engagements. If you can rearrange your content schedule to better align with their availability, that’s an option. But if you can’t, consider approaching the SME further in advance the next time you want to use their expertise in your content.
SME partnerships come in all shapes and sizes. Some are long term and others are one-off situations. Similarly, most SME partnerships require payment, but some take place in a volunteer capacity. Before you decide on the right candidate for your project, make sure you can afford them. New SMEs rarely know what to expect from these kinds of partnerships, so be sure to work with your HR and legal teams to come up with a fair protocol for all parties.
Those who have worked in an SME capacity before may come with a set price tag and list of expectations. Your team will then need to decide if what they’re asking for fits into your workflow and budget.
For your SME partnership to go off as planned, your candidate needs to be punctual. They have to show up for interviews on time or turn in pieces and edits by a deadline. Their time is valuable, but so is your team’s. The only way a partnership truly works is if everyone puts in the effort and collaborates to develop the best possible content on the set deadlines.
You can often learn about someone’s punctuality before you partner with them in during the communication and interview process. Do they respond to your emails or phone calls promptly? Do they show up on time for an interview, either in person or virtually? If your SME candidate can’t meet these kinds of small deadlines and professional expectations, they’ll likely let you down during the content development phase, too.
Sometimes the thing that can put an SME candidate over the top is an excellent review from someone who knows them in real life. If you have friends or colleagues in the SME’s industry circle, have worked with people in their niche, or have team members with an extended professional network, ask around. See what people have to say about your SME candidate and their experience. Getting the seal of approval from someone your team knows could make all the difference in the selection process.
Has this person shared their expertise as an SME before? Those with previous SME experience may be better choices for your brand because they already know the drill. You won’t have to train these candidates on how to be an SME. Instead, you can provide them with a list of brand and content expectations and they can rise to them. Working with someone who already knows how to do the job and what to expect can save your team time and effort when scaling content production with your SMEs.
You may browse the checklist above and look at the potential qualities of an SME and wonder, “but how will I know if I pick the right person for the job?” It’s scary to think that picking one collaborator could make or break your brand image or the success of your content. That’s why you can’t think about those kinds of absolutes. There is no “right” person for an SME job. Every brand, every project, and every audience has different needs at different times.
But that’s the benefit of these kinds of partnerships. You can use them long-term if you form a successful bond with someone, or you can simply work with someone on a single project. You can even cut ties halfway through a project (contracts permitting) if you’re not getting the results you expected. Most SMEs work as freelancers, on a contract basis, or even as volunteers in some industries. You’re not locked in for life the same way you are when you hire a full-time team member.
It’s also important to remember not to judge your SMEs on one quality alone. For example, if someone earned their cybersecurity degree from Joe’s Technical College, you may rule them out as a candidate early. Don’t do that. At least not until you have a clearer picture of their other qualifications, such as their years of experience in the field, work history, and a combination of the other qualities listed above.
You’ll know you’ve picked the right SME for any content project when your pieces take off online and when your audience has a favorable response. If that doesn’t happen, you can always choose a different SME for your next project.
One easy way to calm the fear of picking the wrong SME for your project is to work with an agency that specializes in finding the right creative and expert talent for every client and campaign. At CopyPress, we work hard to make sure that we assign industry-specific writers, editors, and quality assurance specialists for each project. We also find SMEs that fit your specific niches and content types so you don’t have to.
Are you ready to create expert content without the headache of sourcing and vetting potential candidates? Leave that to us and schedule a call with CopyPress for your first campaign consultation.
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